Board books for children survive thumping, tossing, wetting and chewing, and all the while they tell great stories
Another parcel of books came from America this week, charmingly illustrated treasures outgrown by my five-year-old nephew. They will go to one of the children's libraries nearby, but first I must sort through them and see which are suitable for children just discovering English, children already fluent in English, and children who attend a special school. All that will take time. Or so I tell myself.
The truth is that I'm drooling over a book about a rainbow that has coloured satin ribbons threaded through the pages. And one about trucks in which kids lift up flaps to find a hidden cat. Another is called “That's Not My Puppy” and each page has fuzzy ears or a hairy coat that little readers can run their fingers over.
Even the plain page-turners look extraordinary. Eric Carle's “From Head to Toe” and “The Very Busy Spider” have sophisticated collage illustrations to go with their simple stories. In “Gingerbread Baby” by Jan Brett, the Alpine landscapes are a delight, and the detailed marginal drawings slow us down to relish the experience. Jan Brett also tells and illustrates a witty story of a boy and his white mitten, which shelters many lavishly drawn animals, from a mole to a bear. Maria Majewska's drawings in “Ten Little Mice” are botanical, entomological, zoological masterpieces.
H.A. Rey's Curious George is in this parcel too, though he causes less trouble than usual. The monkey's sorrow at having separated a bunny from his parent is perfectly rendered.
All these editions are what the Americans call “board books”, printed on glossy, thick cardboard to survive toddlers who thump them on the carpet, toss them out of prams, smear them with mashed carrots, and chew on them. You simply wipe a board book clean and it's ready for battle again.
Physical beauty and strength aside, the books tell great stories. In “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, a larva turns into a butterfly, the best story in the world. “Good Night Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann tells a humorous tale with almost no words. A zookeeper checks on all his animals before he turns in for the night, but the gorilla he said good night to first is following close behind, unlocking one animal after another. In “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram, a hare and his dad vie with each other to express their love.
My favourite find this time is “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson, copyright 1955. It's an ordinary paper book, illustrated in just three colours — black, grey and purple. An enterprising child wants to go for a walk in the moonlight, so he draws a moon, and then a path to walk on, and a forest to walk into, and so on, till he figures out how to come home again. It's absurd. It's absorbing. The book is worn and the front cover is ripped, so perhaps this one's a bit too shabby to be passed on. Or so I tell myself.